Tom Conran (Sir Terence's son) is to Notting Hill what Princess Diana is to Chelsea-Knightsbridge - he's the Prince of the Gateymaties. It is only a short boogie from the pricey "grocer's" on Westbourne Grove, to his "Saloon Bar" - the Cow - on Westbourne Park Road. And he has a flat around the corner.
Downstairs, the Cow, an old pub, is still run by Conran. With its stencilled mirrors and Guinness posters, it is ever so slightly kitsch: but the fare of sausages, oysters, langoustines and the like - all served from behind the bar - manages to be both rough and sophisticated at once. Most of the other foody pubs in the area could learn a thing or two from it. Upstairs, the dining room used to offer a fixed-price set menu. It has kept its appearance, and much of its clientele, but it has now been taken over by Francesca Melman. Melman has cooked at some of London's hottest restaurants (the Brackenbury and Alistair Little) and her training has served her well.
The Cow dining room consists of a small, light, glossy room of nine or 10 tables all covered in paper table cloths. Thirty years ago it might have been called a bistro. Here, you get simple, no frills, no fuss seasonal eating. Desserts, for example, include apple fritters, orange and almond cake, blackberry sorbet or, as a savoury alternative, Russet apples and Tornegus cheese. And, quite apart from the ood, there are other nice touches: an elegant-looking menu, and prompt, attentive service from two heroically hard-working waiters - we went on a Monday night, and the restaurant was all but full.
Forgoing the baked sardines, my step-sister went for smoked-salmon blinis with sour cream and chives. She announced she preferred her blinis with caviar, but then she is the sort of step-sister who "prefers" plovers eggs and pre-phylloxera clarets. As smoked salmon blinis go, these were faultless. My onion and garlic soup was better still. This was not, as I had expected, a variation on the classic French onion soup, but a pungent, beautifully smooth emulsion. Looked at minutely it revealed a galaxy: tiny globules of cream suspended in a rich garlic and onion stock, on which floated larger circles of dark green olive oil - it was cosmic.
For my main course, I chose red mullet, which came with an anchovy and caper tapenade, braised chicory and baked "cherry vine" tomatoes (are there tomatoes which don't grow on vines?). The red mullet, it has to be said, was a little lifeless but the vegetables were excellent. My step- sister went for a second appetiser - oxtail rillettes and salad. Here she felt that she had perhaps made the wrong choice - the salad consisted of a couple of artfully arranged leaves, and the rillettes was smooth and fatty. She was right about the salad, it was a bit mean, and I could see what she meant about the rillettes. But then rillettes is meant to be smooth and fatty. In fact, I admired the kitchen for doing it properly: every menu should feature one or two brave, bad-mannered dishes. Perhaps some international marketing, like two fingers raised, is needed to alert the timid and unsuspecting. Poor old Sis.
The desserts that walked past us looked delicious - orange and almond cake, served with caramelised oranges, especially. By this stage, though, we were both overflowing, and so limited ourselves to a blackberry sorbet that was fresh and tasty, although not as intense as it might have been. The Cow's wine list is short, imaginative and cheap - just right for the place. We felt good enough about the menu to splash out a bit and went for a young Saumur Champigny at the upper end of the range (pounds 17.50, house wines start at pounds 9.50). Even with this, the bill came to a reasonable pounds 57 including service.
If you eat at the Cow, you will be surrounded by some of the Gate's most beautiful people. On the night we were there, everyone seemed to know each other and they all looked the same. The fashion for tight, bum-flattening, slightly flared hipsters, which still endures in this neighbourhood, seems to give the Cowgirls of Notting Hill a physiognomy all of their own. We North Londoners, however, were made to feel entirely at home. If my research leads me to any pubs harbouring such good food, I'll be a surprised and lucky scholar
The Cow Dining Room 89 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 (0171-221 0021). Eves only Mon-Sat, Lunch only Sun. No wheelchair access. Cards accepted, except Diner's and AmExReuse content